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How to Talk to Your Child About Sexual Assault

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on August 24, 2021

It’s natural to feel discomfort, anxiety, or uncertainty when discussing topics like sexual assault and sexual safety with your child, but these conversations are necessary to keep your child safe. Talking to your child helps them identify what sexual assault is in a way that’s appropriate for their age and teaches them what to do when they feel sexually unsafe.

Start having these conversations often when your child is young so they understand what healthy boundaries are and what to do in unsafe situations. There are several ways you can address the topic of sexual assault with your child that can minimize your anxiety. 

8 Tips for Talking About Sexual Assault

1.Start early.  Build awareness of sexual safety in your child from a young age. Discuss the topic in a way that feels natural but is age appropriate. If you find it challenging to step into the topic directly, weave it naturally into conversations on other topics like trust, relationships, and making friends. Keep the momentum going as your child gets older.   

2. Build a strong relationship. Always engage in clear, honest, and empathetic communication with your child. Building a strong relationship with your child gives them a sense of trust in you. Impress upon your child that they won’t get into trouble or upset you when they’re being honest with you. This fosters an environment where they feel safe enough to talk to you about their problems.  

3. Provide tools for communication. Teach your child the names of their body parts. Help them understand that some body parts are private and should not be looked at or touched by other people. Your child needs a way to name feelings that can come up in uncomfortable or unsafe situations. Use variations of “when you don’t feel safe, you might feel sick in your tummy" or "you might feel a bit wobbly," depending on the age of the child.  

4. Encourage your child to talk. Children model parental behavior, so be aware of your own emotions when talking about sex around your child. Your child may pick up on feelings of guilt and embarrassment and adopt the same attitudes.‌

Talk about sexual safety in direct and concrete terms. For example, if in doubt, ask your daughter if someone is touching her chest, breasts, or vagina. The more clearly children understand what’s acceptable, the more likely they are to report assault. 

5. Talk about the difference between good and bad secrets.  Children are often asked to keep their abuse secret so the abuser can continue their behavior without fear of being caught. Help your child understand the difference between good secrets and bad secrets.

For instance, you might explain that a good secret needs to be kept for a short time and usually makes people happy, while a bad secret will make them feel afraid or worried. Give your child examples and let them know that it's best to share bad secrets with you.

6.Help your child learn to say no. Teach your child that it's okay to say no to inappropriate touching, being blackmailed or bribed, or being forced to stay in uncomfortable or scary situations. Help them practice standing on their feet and saying out loud things like “stop it right now, I don’t like it".  

7. Discuss or roleplay unsafe situations. Another step you can take is to discuss why certain situations are unsafe. Situations you might talk about include:

  • ‌Accepting sweets or presents from strangers without permission
  • ‌Hiding bad experiences with others — whether it's a stranger, family member, or friend
  • ‌Going places alone, without you or an older sibling
  • ‌Inappropriate touching 

8. Talk about online safety. Teach your child safe practices to use whenever they’re online, such as: 

  • Keeping contact details and home addresses private
  • Avoiding chat rooms with strangers 
  • ‌Declining to meet strangers from the internet in real life

Actively monitor their internet usage, and keep tabs on the content they have on their mobile phones by doing discrete checks.

As a parent, it's normal to feel a sense of anxiety when talking to your child about sexual assault and sexual safety, but it's important to make sure they're safe and protected. Following these steps can go a long way toward teaching your child how to identify and deal with unsafe situations. 

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Child Mind Institute: "Talking to Kids About Sexual Abuse." 

North Dakota State University: "Talking to Children About Sexual Abuse." 

RAINN: "Talking to Your Kids About Sexual Assault."

Raising Children: "Child sexual abuse: talking to children 0-11 years."

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